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  • Jill Kessler-Miller`

Treatment of Service Dogs - and the Law

Service Dogs and their handlers are commonly mishandled and even mistreated in restaurants. Service is often denied, illegal questions asked, and documentation demanded that is, by federal law, unnecessary. The fallout of such an altercation can run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars in penalties, fines and awards to the plaintiff, not to mention the ensuing public relations firestorm on social media.

Most people are under the false impression that only seeing-eye dogs for the blind qualify as service dogs. This is not true. There are many types of service dogs, with many disabilities being invisible to the naked eye. Such dogs can be, just to name a few examples, medical alert dogs (diabetes, epilepsy, peanut allergy), mobility support, or psychiatric conditions. Just because a person’s need for their dog is not easily apparent to staff or management does not allow for the patron to be excused.

There is also a pervasive notion that health code pertaining to pet dogs supersedes federal law allowing Service Dogs full public access. The American Disability Act, as enforced by the Department of Justice, specifically states that all service dogs MUST be allowed into any and all types of businesses and public spaces, whether they are markets, restaurants, dry cleaners or theaters.

Think of Service Dogs as a medical device. If you would allow a wheelchair or an oxygen tank, then you must allow a service dog. Service Dogs are NOT pet dogs—they are trained to specific tasks for their handler, to mitigate their disability. The dog is working the entire time, and not out for a little party with its owner. Leslie Horton, R.N., service dog trainer for Most Fine Canine, Inc., in Frederick, MD, “Please remember to treat the dog as a piece of medical equipment. You would not kiss at, bark at, whistle at, or try to feed or pet a crutch or wheel chair.” All that is required of any restaurant is to ignore the dog and seat and serve the patron. Most service dogs have been taught to go under the table and lie down, and to stay out of the way.

Fear of dogs, allergies, cultural differences or personal discomfort is not grounds for refusing service of a patron and service dog team. Nor may a restaurant place the team in a separate area or in outside seating (unless requested by the handler). The handler must be treated as any other patron customer.

So when can you legally ask a person and their service dog to leave the premises? Again, the Department of Justice has been very clear that there are only a few instances in which a team may be excused from a place of business:

  • Aggressive behavior (such as growling, lunging, snapping at people or other animals)

  • Urinating or defecating inappropriately

  • Inappropriate barking

  • Unwanted attention towards other patrons

  • Eating off the floor or tables

  • Disruptive behavior requiring excessive efforts from the handler to control the dog

If you have reason to doubt the validity of the Service Dog, there are only TWO questions you may legally ask:

1. Is this a service animal?

2. What task does this animal provide for you?

The courts have been very clear that if a person responds “Yes, this is my Service Dog,” that the business must take their word for it, and further inquiry is both unjustified and illegal.

Staff or management may not ask, “What is your disability?” This is private, protected information and considered harassment of the disabled. You may not ask for the dog to demonstrate the task it provides. It is also illegal to demand “proof” any kind, including documentation or a vest, as neither the federal or state government requires it. The only entity allowed to decide if an animal is truly a Service Dog is a judge in a courtroom.

Refusing service and/or being rude (including interferring or threatening) to a Service Dog and handler is not only unprofessional behavior, but it is illegal at both state and federal levels. Providing good service to the team will guarantee further patronage and word-of-mouth praise. And that is a lot easier—and cheaper-- than a lawsuit!


“Service Animals,” US Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division, Disability Rights Section, July 12, 2011, accessed 10-6-15

“Service Animal Section,” International Association of Canine Professionals, accessed 10-6-15

Jill Kessler-Miller is an expert witness in lawsuits involving dogs.

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